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Is it because of talent that athletes succeed?

 Talent is an interesting and very important subject when it comes to sport. In professional sports, and even in many non-professional sports, talent is identified from a young age and those special athletes are groomed (trained) for greatness.

So in young athletes how do you identify who is talented and who is not? Well the answer is that you normally compare the boy or girl to other boys or girls of his age, or to be more accurate, age group. If he or she displays more strength, balance, power, accuracy, movement or any combination or sometimes even a single element then we have found talent!

Canadian Psychologist Roger Barnsley discovered in the 1980’s that what we consider to be talent in young athletes may in fact just be superior growth. He was watching a Canadian “little legs” (junior) hockey game when his wife asked him to look at the ages in the programme of the kids playing. The majority of kids were born at the beginning of the year, close to the 1 January cutoff date for that age group. Barnsley was intrigued by this information and started looking at the birth dates of ice hockey players in other age groups and even into the professional ranks. What he found was astounding. In any level of elite ice hockey players in Canada there was a clear distribution in birth months.

40% of the players were born between January and March

30% of the players were born between April and June

20% of the players were born between July and September

10% of the players were born between October and December.

Those athletes that were identified as talented were given extra training and were selected for specific representative squads and teams and so forth which resulted in two things happening. These kids got a few extra hours of quality practice per week, on an ongoing basis, and secondly, they begun to develop the mindset that they had ice hockey ability – after all isn’t that what the adults were telling them? Consequently for those kids who didn’t make it, perhaps due to not benefitting from a growth spurt, they fell behind in training hours and unless they had a really strong home environment (parents who encouraged them to not limit their thinking), they may have begun to think that they didn’t have what it takes in ice hockey, and developed THAT mindset.

Interestingly in America in basketball the same effect is not mirrored. One of the primary reasons for this is that a major element in grooming talent is the informal games of ‘street pickup’ basketball that happen spontaneously in cities across the country. There the barrier to entry is not your birth date but your ability and character. If an underdeveloped child doesn’t make his school or club team, he can practice as much as he wants in these pick-up games to develop his ability whilst strengthening his mind. Baseball however suffers from the same cut-off date and ‘age streaming problem’. In America, non-school baseball has a strict cut-off date. July 31. More major league baseball players are born in August than any other month.

In South Africa our rugby has two challenges to face in regards to talent. Firstly we are very age-group dominated in our thinking of teams and representative sides and secondly we discriminate on size and power over skill and finesse, especially at age group level. So as a coach you need to be aware that inside or outside your pool of players, are players who are late developers – who just grew a little later than the rest. They may be more talented than others in your squad; however they may severely limit their ability with their mindset and belief about themselves. These players have a mindset and belief system that was shaped when they weren’t making the U11A or U12A side, because they were born later in the year. Their limited thinking is strangling their late developing talent.

If you can help them understand that as far as you, the coach is concerned, that you believe in their ability regardless of what side they played for before today – then together you can shift the mindset to a high performance mindset.

Carol Dweck PhD discovered that what students believed about their intelligence had an impact on their academic performance.

Some students believe intelligence is a fixed quotient like your height or the number of teeth in your mouth whilst others believed intelligence was something that could grow and develop, like a plant. She created an experiment to ascertain how much of a factor this mindset had on academic performance. Dweck gathered a group of 100 Grade 7’s who were underperforming in Maths. She randomly divided the group into two groups of 50. The first group of kids received instruction in good study skills. The second group was told how our brains grow and develop new neural pathways when confronted with novelty or challenge. At the end of the semester those students who received the growth mindset lecture scored significantly higher than those students who were taught good study skills. Dweck says, “When they worked hard at school, they actually visualized how their brain was growing.”

There is no reason to think that this same type of thinking doesn’t apply to athletes and their belief about their talent – is it finite, or growing and developing all the time.


Church, D (2009), The Genie in your genes – Energy Psychology Press

Gladwell, M (2008), Outliers: The story of success – Penguin

by Tim Goodenough | rugbyIQ.com Mental Toughness Specialist



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